Thomas was a comet in track and cross-country in the late 1950’s and ranks as the premier distance runner of his time.
He looks back at his high school days with fond memories.
“It was a great period in my life,” Thomas said “All the guys that were there and ran cross-country and track with me, the Williams and Genovese, Turpin and others - all great guys.”
Thomas dabbled in some other sports but was mainly a trackman.
“I had a choice after my junior year in cross-country,” Thomas recalled. “I played basketball and I was on the JV team as a sophomore. After cross-country season after winning a state title my junior year - Mr. Everhart came to me and gave me a choice. He said, “this is what we’re going to do. If you want to play basketball - you’re going to play basketball and if you want to run - you’re going to run. But the thing you have to look at is what will get you to college the easiest way?” I had a choice and I didn’t know until later in life that Abe and my dad had discussed the situation. They laid the trap for me. I knew I was a better runner than I was a basketball player and that’s why I continued on running.”
It was the right choice because Thomas was a dominant force in track running the 880 and the mile and in cross-country.
Thomas starting running in junior high school.
“Back in those days the junior highs were broken up in weights. You had the pee wee, the middleweight and heavy weight,” Thomas stated. “In junior high I wasn’t a distance runner - I ran on the 4X100 relay and I broad jumped and I high jumped and that’s all I did. Then when I got into high school there was a guy named Terry Robinson who was a junior and he got me into running cross-country and I went out for the team. I enjoyed running and with Terry we had a team with Bob Crawford and Dick Genovese, Del Williams, Denny Dinsmore and myself and that was our top runners when I was a sophomore. The only senior on that team was Dinsmore and the three years I was in high school we took a complete team to the state championships every year.”
Everhart served as the cross country and track coach and as the years go by Thomas appreciates his old coach even more.
“Of course as a kid you really don’t realize what you’re doing,” Thomas offered. “But I always believed in what he did, but as I got older and went to college and now I coach at Albert Gallatin and we talk about distance runners and I have a friend that is my distance coach and actually the technology of distance coaching hasn’t changed in 40 years. Basically the only change I have seen is that distance runners run more miles. To be a top-notch miler or two miler - well now it’s 5000 and 10,000 meters today. You have to run anything from 80 to 100 miles a week. Way back when I ran it was maybe 20 miles a week. Basically today you do a lot of speed work or a lot of repeats.
“Abe (Everhart) loved to do 200’s or 220’s and we would do anything from six to eight 220’s and you had a watch on you and it’s the same thing today. When you train a kid today it’s basically the same thing. There’s no doubt that with Abe’s knowledge that as I got older and went to college I realized the basics that I had in high school helped me in college very much, especially in cross country. Abe was a tremendous basketball coach, but he had a lot of knowledge about track that people didn’t realize he had. You take the Mannings and Turpins and O’Toole - Abe trained all these guys and we were always tough. Uniontown always had a great track team and a great cross-country team.”
Thomas had a remarkable record in high school as he captured WPIAL and state titles in the 880 and the mile his junior and senior track seasons and also won WPIAL and state championships in cross-country as a junior and a senior.
“After my sophomore season I never lost a cross-country race in high school,” Thomas explained.
The track competition was fierce when Thomas was in high school.
“People don’t realize that we had great high schools in this area,” Thomas said. “You take Redstone, Brownsville, Connellsville, and Uniontown and add in South Union and German. At that time North Union wasn’t strong in track. When we had a county meet - it was a county meet and what I don’t like today about our county meet is that it should be on Saturday afternoon and today they do it during the week. It’s usually on a Thursday.”
Thomas set a WPIAL record of 11:40 and a state record of 10:28.1 in cross-country.
“It was special because you think about it now you very seldom have a kid that repeats in anything today,” Thomas stated. “Because today the technology and everything evens it out. It all depends on the kid - if you want to be the best - I say it’s ninety percent mental and ten percent physical in competing and most young kids do not want to give that ninety percent.”
Thomas who graduated from Uniontown in 1960 drew interest from area colleges. The interest intensified his senior year.
“I really didn’t get noticed until I went to the Golden West Invitational,” Thomas recalled. “There were eight milers invited and that is when I really got noticed nationally. I really didn’t run my best race out there. The guy who beat me out there was Ben Tucker and he was from California.
“Our track season is over in May. The meet there was in July and I didn’t face any competition going into it and Tucker and the kid who finished third - they had just the week before come off of their state meet. We were used to when the gun goes off you just broke toward the inside of the track. Out there the first lap of the mile was run in lanes and then on the second lap you broke toward the inside. I was used to just taking off and Tucker caught me at the finish line and beat me by a tenth of a second. I ran 4:18.8 out there. I also was noticed because I ran 4:14.9 at the Mt. Lebanon Invitational and that was the fastest time for a miler in 1960 east of the Mississippi.”
After sifting through the offers Thomas decided to attend Southern Illinois.
“My coach out there was Lew Hartzog and what sold me on going to Southern Illinois was I wanted to get away from home and I decided to go there because Lew was a new coach and he was starting a new program and that’s where I wanted to be,” stated Thomas.
Thomas had success with the Salukis – a national champ and All American his first year. He led Southern Illinois to a NAIA cross-country championship in November of 1960 covering the grueling four miles in a record 20:39. He also helped the Salukis go from last place in 1960 to the Interstate Conference track title in 1961. He set the two mile record with a time of 9:15.3. Thomas went to school for two years before he dropped out. He entered the service and then returned to Uniontown in 1966. He went to work for Coca-Cola and remained there for 37 and half years before he retired in 2004.
Still residing in Uniontown, Thomas, 68, never married and is in his sixth year coaching track and cross-country at Albert Gallatin High School.